Iraq's rival political factions have for the first time called for a timetable for withdrawal of US-led foreign forces from their country.
In a statement issued at the end of an Arab League-backed reconciliation conference in Cairo, political leaders declared that Iraqi forces should take over control of the country's security as soon as possible. The delegates agreed to call "for the withdrawal of foreign troops according to a timetable, through putting in place an immediate national programme to rebuild the armed forces ... control the borders and the security situation".
The conference was attended by Iraq's President, Jalal Talabani, and about a hundred Sunni, Shia and Kurdish leaders, many of whom will be standing as candidates in the forthcoming national elections.
Sunni leaders have long been pressing the Iraqi government to set a date for the full withdrawal of foreign troops. This has been resisted by the Shia-dominated administration, which has maintained that it would send the wrong signal to insurgents and put added pressure on Iraqi forces not yet fully prepared to take on all security operations.
The communiqué at the end of the conference did not stipulate a specific date. But the agreement on a timetable prepares the ground, some Sunni delegates insisted, for reaching that point in the future. A much larger conference, planned for February or March next year, will revisit all the issues surrounding a total pull-out of coalition troops.
Iraq's Interior Minister, Bayan Jabr, said: "By the middle of next year we will be 75 per cent done in building our forces and by the end of next year it will be fully ready."
The statement also stressed that the participants were committed to the unity of Iraq and called for the release of all "innocent detainees" and "an immediate end to arbitrary raids and arrests without a documented judicial order".
* At least 18 people, including 10 policemen, were killed and dozens injured in a suicide car bomb attack in Kirkuk yesterday. In a separate incident, a US soldier was killed by a roadside bomb, bringing the total of US military dead to 2,098 since March 2003.